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UK Coaching Team
Rapport Building and Communicating

Dave Elliott’s Grassroots Coaching: Managing Poor Attendance

Finding ways to get predictable attendance are vital, says National Programmes Manager at the Rugby Football League Dave Elliott. Without it, your coaching will suffer. Using the Spond Team App can aid the process. This resource has been developed in partnership with Spond

A former professional rugby league player, Dave’s career ended at 24 when a double leg break and a pulmonary embolism left him facing a nearly two-year recovery. Out of contract and with his childhood dreams in tatters, a former youth coach came to see him.

“He dragged me off the sofa and along to a coaching course,” says Dave, “and I got the bug!” Fifteen years later, Dave now works for English rugby league’s governing body, where he’s responsible for the strategy, management and implementation of all the national programmes below the elite squads.

Becoming a coach

“Even as a kid, I was quite an ‘interested player’. I wasn’t one of those who just sat quietly in team meetings. I’d want to know why I was doing things. I wasn’t the most talented in the world, but I felt I understood the game.”

“My first 12 months coaching grassroots were hard. I expected the players to perform at the level I was used to, and they couldn’t.

Technically and tactically, I had to adapt. I had to find a way to engage them and understand the reasons they were there, their psychology. They work 9-to-6, they can’t always get there on time.”

The impact of poor attendance

But Dave is clear you can’t have people persistently not turning up. 

“It begins to affect the coaching: people just rerun sessions or stop planning altogether. It also affects the team’s performance. Players get frustrated if they’re working hard, trying to improve themselves, and other people aren’t there. You have to tackle it.

“It starts with communication skills. Set out your plans and goals at the start of the season. Talk about behaviours and standards that you expect all your players to adhere to.”

Top tips for managing attendance

  • Set clear expectations.
  • Understand your athletes’ circumstances.
  • Plan well: pick an objective for a session and develop plans for how to deliver it with different numbers of athletes.
  • If you select on effort and attendance, stick to this.
  • Athletes can’t always attend, but they can always tell you in advance. Encourage responsibility and organisation. Your time is valuable.
  • Missing one session is understandable and all families have commitments. If there is a pattern speak to the athlete and their parents.
  • Speak to players about choices: missing a session for a friend’s trip to the cinema is different to a parents’ evening.
  • Be emotionally aware and consider the athlete’s and parents’ situation.

Strategies to manage attendance

“If you’re dealing with kids, talk to the parents too. Tell them there’s ground rules: ‘We know that sometimes players can’t make it for whatever reason, but let’s understand that if you want to play in this team, you have to attend training sessions.’”

“The rules might be different at different levels,” says Dave, “but even at international level, you need to have people’s buy-in. 

Once you get a collective understanding, everyone becomes accountable. Even at junior level, teams will begin to self-organise and plan."

Using the Spond Team App to improve attendance

  • You can send automated invites to games and recurring practices, slashing admin time.
  • Automatic attendance, requiring opt outs: the app can send reminders automatically at an optimal time.
  • The app provides one-click overviews of players’ attendance over the season.
  • Suggest date features make it easy to find the best time for events or parent meetings.
  • You can synchronise events to your calendar.
  • The waiting list feature can deal with dropouts.

Talking to individuals 

“You need to recognise you have a responsibility for the full squad of players,” Dave explains. “Sometimes you need to sit a player on the bench for a game to get the message over, which also sends a positive message to those who do turn up.”

If it’s a personal problem, you need to know your players and their family. Suppose there’s a child whose parents have separated. If you know them on an individual basis, you can find a solution. Perhaps another parent can help out with lifts. Do that and you can meet your responsibility to the team while also keeping the individual involved and maybe help them through a difficult time.”

The value of coaching

“Coaching is much, much harder these days because parents’ expectations are higher. It’s not just taking a bag of balls onto a field for a session; those days are long gone. Some days you’re a social worker, some a manager, some a teacher.”

But Dave is clear that grassroots coaching is immensely rewarding.

"I still to this day get a broad smile on my face when I see a player I coached at a young level performing as a professional, even an international. If I’ve helped them in even a small way, it’s wonderful. You can be part of helping them achieve something amazing.”   

Free Spond Team App

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